Why I teach my students about chocolate: My guest blog for Dandelion

This week, I wrote a guest blog post for Dandelion Chocolate. The topic is my UW Bothell class Chocolate: A Global Inquiry. When I started teaching it in 2010, it was the first university class in the country (maybe world?) devoted entirely to chocolate.

Enjoy, and thank you, Dandelion, for the opportunity to write for your blog!

Read my guest blog post here: “Why I teach my students about chocolate

The World of Seattle Chocolate, Part I: Chocolopolis

A few weeks ago, I had a super fun time talking with Ruby de Luna of KUOW, Seattle’s NPR affiliate, for a Local Wonder segment. This program has a cool format: listeners submit questions about the Seattle area, and then local experts answer them. Listener Beth Ann Johnson had submitted the question, “Why does Seattle have such a large local chocolate industry?” and it was my great pleasure to be one of the folks Ruby interviewed to answer it. You can read and listen to the story here.

I love the final piece, especially the parts where we walk around Bartells drugstore on the Ave and check out the chocolates. (Meanwhile, friends from afar have called me with requests for Forte Chocolates, after hearing founder Karen Neugebauer talk about her confections.) I also asked Ruby if I might share some of our discussion that didn’t make it into the final cut, purely because of time limitations. Ruby agreed, so this week and likely for the next few, I’ll write about the other things we discussed. Ruby’s questions were very thought-provoking for me, and prompted reflection on the unique position that Seattle occupies in the chocolate world.

We discussed many things, one of which of course was that we have a critical mass of highly visible chocolate companies in this area, all of which serve, as it were, our different chocolate “needs.” Among these are Theo Chocolate, the first company to sell chocolate certified both fair trade and organic in the country. Then there is Seattle Chocolates, whose innovations around inclusions, among other things, have an especially Pacific Northwest flavor to them. Fran’s Chocolates has been a pioneer in the confectionery realm, particularly with their now iconic sea-salted caramels. And Dilettante Chocolates Mocha Cafés have helped foster a delicious and chocolate-based dessert culture in this city.

But there are other chocolate epicenters too, where leaders have been shaping the industry in Seattle and beyond. I want to highlight some of them—people and companies that have been influential in my own thinking and research, and elevated our city’s chocolate savvy in meaningful ways.

First up is Lauren Adler, whose Chocolopolis shop in upper Queen Anne has been at the vanguard of chocolate education since it opened in 2008. When I first walked into Lauren’s shop, I was stunned and delighted to see that she had arranged her selection of bars in such a way that chocolate education was inevitable and immediate. Because the origins of chocolate—that is, cocoa beans—are still little discussed (and even less so when Chocolopolis opened its doors), I have often found that people are surprised to learn that where the cocoa comes from matters to the finished product. While many things contribute to flavor, country of origin is a big one: a bar from Madagascar, to take a now-classic example, tastes very different to one from Ecuador. The former’s bright, high fruit notes can make a sharp contrast to the latter’s flowery tones, especially those made using Ecuador’s prized Nacional beans.

Chocolopolis sets the stage for this learning the moment a customer walks in the door, because Lauren arranges her carefully curated selection by country of origin of the beans. I know of no other shop that does this, and the visual arrangement means that shoppers are immediately aware that country of origin is meaningful. Regulars no doubt quickly learn which origins they prefer, and that is already a tremendous insight into the chocolate process.

And all this does not even get to, of course, the stunning line of Chocolopolis’s own confections and bars, which are right there alongside the geography shelves.

champions box
Champions Box of award-winning Chocolopolis confections, photo by Scott DFW, @dallasfoodorg

Lauren also has some of the highest standards in this industry for the products she will sell. Her process for selecting bars is rigorous, systematic, and inclusive of her staff. This is a tougher job than you might think, as the craft chocolate industry has grown exponentially in recent years, and determining what is technically superior from what is simply novel is no mean feat. But knowing a little about Lauren’s selection process, I feel confident in saying that no bar reaches Chocolopolis shelves without demonstrating a mark of technical excellence. This does not mean that the bars all reflect the staff’s or Lauren’s  flavor preferences; it means that they are well crafted, and that we can trust the skill of the maker. Among the explosion of new bars on the craft market, this is the place to go to find the truly exceptional.

Chocolopolis also holds regular educational events, including tastings, happy hours, meet-the-maker evenings, a frequent bar club, and lectures (some of which I have had the honor of hosting). The staff members are among the most educated and knowledgeable in chocolate retail (and I do a lot of undercover questioning at shops around the country). They understand products and process, and can speak knowledgeably to the whole product range. Together, all of this means that Chocolopolis is not only selling chocolate; it provides a place where people can go to learn.

The website offers more resources that help shape a chocolate-educated consumer population. There are details about origin countries and why Lauren chose to arrange her bars geographically. There are also write-ups about the different makers and companies whose products line the shelves, which makes for a nicely curated selection of information about the craft industry. Lauren also maintains an excellent blog as well as a list of chocolate books.

Very few cities can boast this kind of site of chocolate learning: a place where you can stop in at any time, talk to someone knowledgeable about chocolate, and walk away with not only a bar that suits your preferences, but likely some new piece of information about chocolate origins or process. I personally have turned to Lauren many times over the years, with questions about American craft chocolate, and have always been enlightened by her knowledge. As a researcher of both cocoa and chocolate, it’s a boon to me that Lauren Adler and Chocolopolis are right here in my neighborhood, among the leaders in chocolate education in a fast-changing chocolate world.

A Bay Area Long Chocolate Weekend

The five days from last Thursday through Monday were among the most energizing and productive for my chocolate research and learning, ever. When I last blogged on Friday, I was in the midst of observing the excellent work of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute at its first US-based Cacao Grader Intensive workshop. It was a real pleasure to witness the training program, which is part of the Institute’s broader work to generate and share cocoa evaluation methods. Carla Martin (Harvard University), the institute’s co-founder (along with Colin Gasko, Rogue Chocolatier), kindly took the time to talk with me afterwards, and shared her vision for the FCCI. As the craft expands in new directions, discussions around what makes “quality” chocolate have become more prominent both within the industry and beyond. Carla and Colin are creating incredibly thoughtful, evidence-based approaches to developing a common, workable vocabulary around quality for this industry.

Among the many things that impressed me from our conversation is the FCCI’s strong grounding in information-gathering and sharing amongst many industry stakeholders. Carla described a variety of ways that the FCCI is amassing much-needed data around how to evaluate cocoa quality, and these methods involve near constant feedback loops. The instruments seem to me very sensitive to context specificity, while at the same time paving the way for people to talk meaningfully with one another about cocoa quality across a wide variety of industry positions, from farmers to importers to makers. As conversations in craft circles can slide easily into debates over flavor and quality “rankings” based on personal preference or anecdote (to be clear, those are my words, not Carla’s or Colin’s), the FCCI’s thoughtful, data-driven, and in many ways egalitarian approach is most welcome. I truly look forward to seeing their programming expand, and to the impact it will no doubt have on quality assessment across our chocolate world.

And after that impressive showing, there was even more at the FCIA events. This year, the Fine Chocolate Industry Association celebrated its largest ever attendance at the conference. It was an honor to host a Table Talk, on my recent research into chocolate artisanry. I was delighted to have pretty much a full house for the talk and humbled by the level of interest in this work—about how we can define artisan in a rigorous way, and use data to understand how consumers make sense of it. I shared some of my findings at the talk, and was grateful for the insights of industry experts into defining and applying “artisan” during our discussion. My publication on this work is forthcoming, and I look forward to sharing it soon—even more now after a successful talk at the FCIA. Many thanks again to Pam Williams (FCIA President) and Karen Bryant (FCIA Executive Director) for all their work organizing such a wide-ranging and thought-provoking education program, and for having me to be a part of it. I already look forward to the FCIA east coast gathering, coming this June to New York.

The Dandelion Chocolate brunch, the morning following the FCIA conference, was probably the most concentrated gathering of chocolate folks I have ever experienced. It was not possible to turn in any direction without running into someone who has made, or is making, some notable contribution to the industry. Just as memorably, I was never more than six inches from some nice brunch-y treat. All I needed to do was reach out my hand and, voila: something delicious to eat or drink (the thickly rich European-style hot chocolate was the winner for me). I was particularly happy to finally meet in person Bertil Akesson, of Akesson’s Single Estate Chocolate whose work in Madagascar cocoa I have talked about for many years in my teaching and presentations.

I was also very glad to have had the chance over the long weekend for several conversations with Jessica Ferrero, of Bar Cacao. While we correspond over email, meeting in person can make possible the kinds of thought-provoking conversations that don’t necessarily grow out of message exchanges. As I presented and talked through my analysis of the term “artisan” for the chocolate industry, Jessica shared her thinking around other terms, particularly “bean to bar,” and made me realize that these deserve our scrutiny as well. I am hopeful (hint, hint) that Jessica will write a posting soon with her thoughts on this, as they were enlightening to me. I’m also thankful to have been able to attend Jessica’s Bar Cacao tasting event, with Chloe Doutre-Roussel (Chloe Chocolat). The chance to hear Chloe speak is never one to miss, and her deep knowledge of flavor and tasting methods is always a source of inspiration.

The Fancy Food Show was a final highlight, though I did not get to spend quite as much time there as it takes to visit all six thousand booths. Instead, I joined a small roving group of chocolate people, including Sunita de Tourreil of The Chocolate Garage and Seneca Klassen of Lonohana Hawaiian Estate Chocolate, to hang out and taste samples at the A Priori specialty food booth and then the Crio Bru table. I am particularly grateful to Matt Caputo for the enlightening conversation at A Priori, to Bertil for a taste of his 100% bar, and to Cassandra Durtschi for the marvelous cup of Crio Bru Ecuador Light Roast cocoa drink. As I explained to Cassandra, with their lovely product I might at last fill the morning-hot-drink gap in my life. As a person who doesn’t drink coffee (likely the only one in Seattle), I have often longed to clutch a mug of hot drink in my cold hands on the dark, rainy mornings, and now that yawning chasm of desire can be filled. A million thanks!